Prime Time Crime

(Prime Time Crime exclusive Dec. 17, 2012)

Navel Gazing

By Bob Cooper


On April 20, 1999 Eric Harris and Dylan Klebold, both students, walked into Columbine High School in Colorado and started shooting.  As individual police officers from different agencies arrived at the school they reacted as they had been trained to do which was to contain the building as best they could and wait for SWAT to arrive.  All the while Harris and Klebold roamed the school killing 12 students and one teacher and wounding scores of others before turning their guns on themselves.  Columbine became a turning point for law enforcement the world over and since then officers have been trained in Active Shooter response in which they no longer wait but enter the building in small groups and head for the sound of the gunfire.  The purpose is to stop or at least disrupt the activity as soon as possible thereby saving lives.  Law Enforcement has clearly come a long way and the handling of recent incidents like the theater shooting in Aurora, Colorado and Friday’s massacre at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, have been absolute textbook ‘how to’ examples.

Politicians are damned if they do and damned if they don’t in these situations.  Most feel they must rush to the scene to show voters that they ‘feel their pain’ but in most cases when they do they just get in the way.  President Bush was criticized as insensitive and uncaring for not going to New Orleans after Hurricane Katrina but that was truly the last thing the people there needed.  Anyone who’s been anywhere near a Presidential visit knows what a massive logistics and operational nightmare it is and how heavily it taxes local law enforcement when their efforts would be better focused on the task at hand.  Inspirational words, a call for prayers, and offers of federal assistance are all well and good but do it from your office and put it on a Jumbotron until things settle down.  Thankfully most Canadian politicians are a little more restrained but I have seen it happen here.

I don’t for a moment want to minimize the unimaginable suffering these incidents bring but to watch the news coverage you’d think they’re something new or that they happen every day.  In 1927 Andrew Kehoe killed a total of 44 people, 38 of them children, when he blew up a school near Lansing, Michigan.  In 1966, after murdering both his wife and his mother, Charles Whitman climbed to the top of the Tower at the University of Texas and over the next hour and thirty minutes he murdered 16 people before being killed by police.    As the old saying goes, ‘one is too many’ but statistically these events are still pretty rare.  In fact, you have a better chance of being struck by lightning. 

The 24 hour news cycle has been a real game-changer where, in the absence of facts, endless & in some cases, irresponsible speculation fills the void and then morphs into editorializing.  We’re constantly told about this ‘discussion’ we’re all supposed to have which will somehow prevent anything like this from ever happening again.  I find this annoying because I’m perfectly capable of absorbing information and forming my own opinions.  Given the liberal bias of most mainstream news outlets the ‘discussion’ always comes around to gun control which they like because it’s controversial and fills time with plenty of ‘experts’ on one side and the NRA on the other, each attempting to sway the ordinary reasonable people in the middle.  I’ll grant you that keeping guns out of the wrong hands is something that some states could do a better job of but in this case it wouldn’t have made one bit of difference.  All three guns the killer used were legally purchased and registered in a state with some of the most stringent gun laws in the country, much to the chagrin of some outlets who just ignored that fact and carried right on.  A few days ago a man in China apparently unhinged over the doomsday predictions of the Mayan calendar, stabbed an elderly woman in her home then went to a school where he stabbed and slashed 23 children before being subdued by police.  I’m waiting for MSNBC to demand confiscation of all butcher knives.        

Pundits ask rhetorically why these things happen.  In most cases the killers are losers who would otherwise pass through this world unnoticed but they want to be memorialized and having their name & photo on the news hour after hour gives them exactly the validation they seek which contributes to the ‘copycat’ phenomena.  To their credit it appears many in the media now realize this and are taking pains to avoid mentioning the killer and concentrating on the victims instead.  Another good media strategy is the use of law enforcement commentators which helps educate the public and brings informed perspective to the story.

All the ‘discussion’ is likely to accomplish is to enrich shysters like Michael Moore who trade on grief to advance political agendas because as long as the world is populated by human beings this sort of thing is going to happen from time to time.  Sometimes, despite all of the dialogue and navel gazing, there are no answers.  Some of these killers leave clues in the form of a note, diatribes about real or imagined grievances on their computers, or a pre-event change in behavior, while others take their reasons to the grave with them and we’ll simply never know.

Amidst of the horror of Friday’s events a couple of things really impressed me.  First was that all of the diverse local, state, and federal law enforcement agencies jumped in seamlessly and took care of business without even a hint of the turf wars that have sometimes occurred in the past.  The way the Connecticut State Police stepped up and took charge really shored up their long-held reputation as a very squared-away outfit.  In the initial hours when confusion usually reigns, their spokesman, Lt. J. Paul Vance, provided a calm, rational presence striking just the right balance between showing empathy for the victims, families, and survivors, yet maintaining that professional detachment which is so essential.  This provides a vital reassurance to the public that the police have the situation under control and they won’t let it get any worse.  Despite long hours, the emotional nature of the situation, and constant pressure, Lt. Vance did an outstanding job ensuring the accuracy of information, and releasing what he could as soon as he could while avoiding certain details which would just compound the families’ pain.  He also displayed the patience of a seasoned professional in the face of repeated stupid questions like ‘exactly how many shots were fired?’.  Good God, when you have a room full of dead children what does it matter?  I noticed that Lt. Vance was singled out for praise this afternoon by Wolf Blitzer of CNN.  I’ve met Mr. Blitzer who is a perfect gentleman both on-screen and off and deserving of his preeminent position in the industry.  A compliment from him is the equivalent of an Oscar.       

The other was that once again, at a time of incredible tragedy, the strength of the human spirit prevailed.  People and companies across the nation rallied to support these devastated families in ways both large and small.  They brought food to the firehouse, undertakers volunteered to provide funerals to spare the families the chore, and this evening when the President arrived, the townspeople packed the church and gave a standing ovation to the cops, firemen, and paramedics who were there when the people of Newtown needed them.   The President’s reference to ‘the good guys’ struck a note with me.  I’m not a fan of his policies but when the country needed him he rose to the occasion in a presidential fashion and knew just what to say.  Throughout its history the United States has been beset by many disasters both natural and man-made, and when you see the indomitable will that Americans always muster to overcome them you realize that despite some flaws it’s one hell of a great country.     



Bob Cooper is a retired Vancouver policeman.  He walked a beat in Chinatown and later worked in the Asian Organized Crime Section and the Homicide Squad.



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